Not your average travel blog
Usually in the U.S. visiting a national park is an experience of managed wilderness – accessible to all – but while slowly being restored, the Kennecott Mine in Wrangell St Elias is more like wandering around a historical National Trust building in Britain, that hasn’t yet been brought back to life. In comparison to most other national parks, the service here is more concerned with the restoration and management of the buildings rather than the wild, and without the challenge of heavy foot traffic, the massive wilderness takes care of itself.
For the tourists that are able to endure the remote and tricky drive to get here, we can wander around the tiny town McCarthy, the impressive processing site, a few shafts, and the dilapidated buildings which have been left as they were since 1938. At least in my gregorian mind, the disused Kennecott copper facility doesn’t quite strike up as much imagination as the thousands of historical-industrial landmarks strewn around Europe or Asia, which were built and operated during eras much deeper in time. Like most of the very modern, propaganda-style, U.S. history, it’s barely a 100 years old. It does however inspire reflection over a recent generation. It’s a glimpse into our grandparents’ endurance and even though new, it’s a spectacle of a bygone era which pushed technological boundaries. It’s an education in how the late Victorian generations survived and how we pursued those developments into the modern age. The company of no more than a total of 600 staff reaped nearly $200million in the 27years it was operational in Wrangell’ and Kennecott Copper Corporation became a giant multinational, eventually expanding further into North American and Chilean mines.
Possibly the best living Indiana Jones film set I’ve been on, it’s not often you get to walk relatively freely around such a derelict site. It isn’t hard to imagine a maze of mining trolleys losing their brakes deep in the mountain side and spinning off into a dark abyss, only for Harrison Ford to find a lady dressed in a nightgown, trapped in a frozen tomb, ready for him to get his whip out in the shadows. “He chose….poorly”, said the knight. It obviously strokes up some imagination…
As with many monstrous relics from recent industry, no consideration was taken for what was left behind. Job done and money made, the city was abandoned, leaving everything including the kitchen sinks to take up space in the wilderness. If it wasn’t for its location, so much more would have been pillaged from the site. Aside from its pleasing but decomposed composition, it’s saddening that we humans feel it’s ok to repetitively leave such wreckages so frivolously across the earth, and nowhere in North America is it any different. Rusty junk and rotting remains are EVERYWHERE. The train tracks bent and fractured out of the ground, wrought iron pressure oven doors ly around, buildings barely stand from the onslaught of extreme elements, piles of broken timber, collapsed splintered roofs, ancient electricals dangle, slippery wooden walkways slant, suspended debris high in the lofty echelons cling delicately to abrasive edges of wood and iron in the zesty fresh winds.
Damp dust provides the back drop to every eye catching section of structure and the soul of backbreaking industry floats along the pathways. Adventurous but fearful; mining conjures fairytale images of the constantly dirty and depraved. Even with the invention of electricity, working under the noise of the power from the surface, pneumatic drills would have only emphasised the manmoles’ risky toils. You can’t ignore the persistence of the surrounding, icy wild and in its remoteness, the bucolic elements offer no easy ride. However, reluctantly, the workers dropped tools and abandoned their lifestyle as if yesterday. With abrasive blue collar tales teasing the senses in this eery corner of recent history; like lingering memories on the breeze, you can almost still smell the old miner’s boots…although that might just be KP’s stinky shoes. We reflect on its simplicity and for some reason, amongst the obvious hardships, we defiantly romanticise it’s occurrence.
Beyond the mine: dirty volcanic mountains, glaciers, ice fields, bear-filled forests, berry-bush covered slopes and silt-filled rivers full of the annual salmon lather the countryside. Much wildlife here has likely never seen a human and Wrangell St Elias remains provocatively and steadfast, a true wilderness. Most only experience it by flying over and only a few local subsistence hunters on the outskirts of the preserve will ever truly see what comes out of its interior.
The unexplored, the uninhabited, the remote, the untouched and the desolate vastness still exist in North America, but finding true wilderness in the USA which is hard to penetrate can sometimes be a challenge. Canada seems to have much more untouched land to the north and unsurprisingly, even with the rapidly changing environment, nature has found solace there. Wrangell St Elias is one of the last wild places on the U.S. map (government regulated). Apart from the muddy path which has replaced the rickety old rail track which is visible in places and once serviced the musty mines, beyond it is the closest to an absolute wilderness that I have come across in the entire USA. In many respects, I am grateful that it’s so difficult to go beyond the manhandled fringes and I appreciate the neglect we seem to have blessed it with. While imagining a damsel in distress in some bear-guarded mine shaft; through pure, wild faith, I’m satisfied to know there is still a huge haven we don’t call home.